6 February 2009
The Power of Information Taskforce has published its report. Or rather it has published a beta version of its report, in a format which not only allows but strongly encourages comments to be made on the draft over the next couple of weeks before it is is formally submitted to Cabinet Office ministers.
That’s a fairly radical approach, and one which is worth a bit of reflection in its own right. As a way of encouraging engagement it is clearly working: the comments are building up, questioning everything from the punctuation to the fundamental principles. More interestingly still, some of the comments are starting to build on one another, creating an engagement which is different in structure to conventional consultation responses as well as in medium. All of that is made to work through a very finely crafted wordpress theme which makes the process painless and transparent.
All in all, this is a splendid and positive step forward, illustrating how a little bit of imagination coupled with a little bit of ingenuity can create new possibilities. But there is always room to be better still, and I have a doubt, a reflection, and a couple of niggles.
The doubt is about who is in the room having the conversation. In the online world, the room has no walls, so appears infinitely large – but of course it isn’t. In practice, the room is quite a small one: I recognise a fair few of the names on the comments, and I strongly suspect that many of those involved know each other. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the people in the room are the people who want to be there, and who, in many cases, have been thinking hard and making things work for a long time. Their opinions count, and their expertise qualifies them to count. But that, of course, is a version of the old-fashioned view of consultation which so much of the thrust of this work is trying to get away from.
It’s not very surprising that the people who turned up are the people who know the party is on. I defy anybody to arrive at the Cabinet Office homepage and find their way to where the action is. The links won’t help. The search engine won’t help. The list of press notices won’t help, because there wasn’t one. Google news can only drag up about half a dozen references (only one of which is in a mainstream publication, and that one starts by misrepresenting the picture presented in the report), so it’s unlikely that many people stumbled on it by accident.
I am making a bit of a meal of that not to get at the Taskforce (who, apart from anything else, are not responsible for the woes of the Cabinet Office website), but to make the point that making material available is absolutely necessary, but a long way short of sufficient – and that the broader information challenge for government (and others) is as much about the life of things beyond publication as it is with the publication itself.
The reflection is about the different needs of readers and writers. The Taskforce report is laid out beautifully to support and encourage people to scribble in the margins, but it doesn’t (to me at least) work nearly as well as a means of presenting the flow of the argument and encouraging the reader to work through it. Full credit to the team for responding so quickly to comments from me and others so that the full text document is now available in a cornucopia of flavours – but there is a clear hierarchy, with the canonic edition being the web version. It is precisely because there is a smart structure behind the document that it suddenly became clear to me that that is just one more of the choices we don’t have to make any more. If different formats work better for different purposes and different audiences, we can pick all of them, rather trying to craft a compromise which isn’t quite right for any of them. Many sites have been doing a crude version of that for years, using different style sheets for screen and print versions. The Taskforce report shows how much further that can now go, even if it doesn’t completely get there itself.
And so to the niggles. We have two weeks to comment on the beta version of the report – but when did the period start, and so when will it end? It would be easy enough to tell us. And while it’s encouraging to see the document licensed under creative commons, it’s a bit odd to have used the US version of the licence. More significantly, the same page carries a crown copyright statement, with usage governed by the click-use licence. They can’t both be right because the obligations they entail are quite different.
Now there’s just the small matter of what the report actually says…